It can’t happen here: using the far away to get up close in Othello and Twelfth Night
By Stephanie Barbé Hammer
A lot of Shakespeare’s plays do not take place in England and it’s interesting to consider how many of them take place in Italy alone. According to Shakespeare online, not less than 13 plays take place entirely or partially in some Italian locale.
One obvious reason is that all most important art of this period originates in Italy. Italy was THE place that visual artists, musicians and writers looked to for inspiration and information. When ISF organized a sonnet slam in Langley in April, we talked about how that quintessential English poem was actually invented and practiced first in Italy and then in France. Italy represented all that is cultured, beautiful (think of the Sistine Chapel!), sophisticated, and intellectual in the Renaissance (think of Machiavelli) so it’s no wonder that Shakespeare set his plays in glamorous, busy cities like Verona and Venice – that so many members of his audience would never actually get to visit. Going to theater – then as now – was a way to imagine yourself in a very different place than the place you lived, a way to travel without leaving your hometown. So, this exoticism would have been very attractive to the curious English audiences of Shakespeare’s plays. Remember these are audiences that know about this mysterious other continent, the “new world” that had been discovered but about which so little was known about. So, they were curious about other climes, and the theater provided them with an imaginary ship to sail to there.
But there is another reason I think as to why so many of the plays are set in a faraway country. And that is to ask questions and make suggestions that would be deemed too uncomfortable if the story were set “at home.”
Othello is a case in point. According to Wikipedia (admittedly, not always the most reliable source) and a UK Telegraph review of the book The Black Tudors, Africans did emigrate to England and were presences in London as early as Catherine of Aragon. Shakespeare’s interest in the Othello story points to his awareness of the presence of African citizens in England as an uncomfortable topic for his predominantly Caucasian society. What better way to get his audiences to think about emerging ideas of racial identity and empire than by putting the scene at a safe remove? And Italy was the perfect place to choose. A recent review of a scholarly book on Africans in Europe suggests the complex roles that African people played in Renaissance Italy and the complicated racial identities that certain prominent Italians may have had (namely, some of the Medici family). If the film Black Panther’s setting in a mythic African kingdom allows US audiences to think beyond the painful history of slavery in this country, it is possible that Othello’s setting in far-away Venice, may have enabled a way for English audiences to think beyond the immediacy of their own land and history. Othello challenges contemporary audiences in the US on many levels, particularly as we grapple with both Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement. But I think that Shakespeare’s audiences were already aware of (and struggling with) issues of gender, race, and power, although those were not the terms they used. But the historicity of the concerns that haunted those audiences of the fledgling British empire explains both why the play spoke to them, and why it still speaks to us, former colonials, and the peoples impacted by those acts of colonialism.
Twelfth Night is also set on the Mediterranean, but not quite in Italy. Rather, the play takes place in a pretend country on the Adriatic coast called Illyria. So, given what we just talked about, why not Italy? Here I am guessing that Shakespeare is playing with us, giving us an equivalent of the Forest of Arden – an imaginary space which is culturally recognizable but where anything can happen. Because we are not in England, we can laugh safely at the conspiracy against Malvolio, we can enjoy the gender-swapping role play, and homosocial/sexual overtones of the interactions between the characters. We are on vacation, after all, and anything goes, doesn’t it? This is the Renaissance equivalent to the Vegas vacation where “what happens in Illyria stays in Illyria.”
But does it? How is Viola changed by becoming – even for a short space – a man? What about Olivia and her choice of love object? The joy of Twelfth Night – as is true for many of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that things may open up in surprising and irreversible ways, when we play pretend with who we think we are.
“It can’t happen here,” Shakespeare is saying in these plays and also “But maybe it does and you just don’t notice.” Theater makes us notice the real world we live in by setting before us actual, breathing people who bring what is foreign and other to our doorstep. Plan your visit to see our versions of these worlds soon!
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a comp lit scholar, poet, and fiction writer who went to her first live performance at 4 (the music man). She has been going to the theater ever since. Stephanie was born in New York City and now lives in Coupeville where she spends her non-writing hours walking and searching for a dry cleaner, a department store, and someone to “tawk” to among the trees.